Category Archives: Iraq

Sadr wins the recount: nothing changes except an improvement in Iraq’s political mood

Muqtada al-Sadr’s alliance wins the vote recount, retaining all 54 of the 329 seats it won in the May 12 vote, with the only change being an extra seat for the Conquest Alliance of pro-Iranian former paramilitary fighters led by Hadi al-Amiri, which remains in second place. This outcome is confidence building, and is good news for Iraq’s new nationalistic-cum-pluralistic political temper, the country having been sidelined for too long in a sectarian cul-de-sac.

In the intervening period, however, Haidar al-Abadi, has not only lost the election, but also his credibility as prime minister, as a result of his now clear inability to tackle corruption.

The Turkish democratic space and the future of the Middle East

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his re-election on the basis of unofficial results after winning 52.5 percent of the national vote for the presidency, as the first executive president on the terms of the April 2017 Constitutional Referendum. The presidency had also previously shifted from being determined by parliamentary vote to a direct plebiscite in 2014. Now that virtually all the 180,996 ballot boxes have been opened, the Turkish Election Board, confirms the result. This is Erdoğan’s thirteenth election win since his days as Istanbul mayor.

However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) only winning 42.5% of the vote in the accompanying elections for the expanded parliament of 600 seats, clearly missed its target of a majority win. The popular vote it acquires translates into 292 seats. Nevertheless, the new government’s ease of manoeuvre in parliament, for legislative purposes, will be made possible through the continuation the AKP’s alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and Erdoğan’s alliance with its leader, Devlet Bahçeli.

Erdoğan’s main rival, Muharrem İnce, the presidential candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), was on 30.8 percent of the votes at the time of Erdoğan’s announcement. The CHP accused the Anadolu Agency of “manipulating” the vote count in its broadcasts in order to confuse matters, in a desperate manoeuvre to buy time as the CHP vote looked to be sharply down from its 25 % performance in the last (November 2015) elections. This is standard practice on the part of CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who always cries foul as a habit, irrespective of the circumstances . His suspicion of ballot tampering was not based on any evidence, but on the mere fact of a turnaround in votes, which simply didn’t meet his expectations or predictions. İnce, however, performed much better in the presidential race than Kılıçdaroğlu did in the parliamentary race, and he conceded gracefully, pointing out that the massive lead Erdoğan enjoyed put the result beyond question.

Meral Akşener, leader of the newly founded right-wing İYİ (Good) Party, with a 7.4% result, failed to live up to the promise of her expected performance in the presidential race, where some polls had put her popularity at 20%. Furthermore her party only managed to scrape through into parliament due to her alliance with Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP.

The Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) succeeded in getting 11.2 percent of the national vote, helped especially by support from non-HDP voters, principally Turkey’s ultra-left voters, who deserted the CHP with negative consequences for the party. Compared with that, therefore, the HDP’s jailed presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş won a disproportionate 8.2 percent support, given that the support from the left was only directed at the party and not its leader.

These June 2018 elections mark the beginning of a new era in Turkey’s administrative system, and is an endorsement of the results of the 2017 Constitutional Referendum. Erdoğan’s tactic of allying with Bahçeli paid off. Erdoğan’s political successes have historically been predicated on carefully judged alliances both within and outside the AKP, although the alliance in the early days with the Fethullah Gülen cultic movement soured spectacularly as it began to plan an unconstitutional take-over through a widespread parallel (deep) state apparatus. This process culminated in the attempted coup in July 2016, and led to the current judicial process of the expurgation of the deep state, with the imposition of a state of emergency, yet to be lifted.

Now, Erdoğan’s AK Parti will clearly have to continue to work with the MHP as a coalition partner in parliament, to pass the legislation that will be needed to put flesh on the bones of the presidential system. Although the MHP is regularly tarred with the brush of “fascism” by ultra-left commentators, it is clear that it has nevertheless left behind the negative image it had in 1990s, when its youth movement fostered the violence of the “grey wolves”. The ultra-left’s continuation of the “fascist” meme in its current discourse about the MHP displays a nostalgia for the street battles and the ideological conflicts of the depressed 1990’s.

Indeed Bahçeli seems to have become a mainstay of the Turkish constitutional system. His wily political nous has positioned him as the “kingmaker” of Turkish politics ever since his call for a snap election back in 2002. He has predictably proved Akşener and the pundits wrong by garnering close to 12% of the parliamentary vote for the MHP. The MHP’s resilience seemed to surprise many among the commentariat as it now becomes a key player in parliament. The members of Akşener’s İYİ (Good) Party will find it hard to watch Bahçeli’s success, having defected from the MHP, and are likely to be attracted back into its fold as Akşener – unable to sit in parliament because she ran as presidential candidate – just watches.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactic to lend 15 CHP deputies to the İYİ (Good) Party, to help Akşener run as a presidential candidate and later ally with İYİ Party, was an act of self-immolation and sabotaged the CHP’s own chances, as Akşener attracted more votes from the CHP than from the AKP, and much less than was hoped from the MHP, which had been her main aim.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactic to put his party rival, Muharrem İnce, in as the presidential candidate, rather than run himself, allowed İnce to demonstrate an unexpected charisma and popularity, which helped him to win 30% of the national vote, or 7.3% more than the disappointing 22.7% achieved by the CHP. The CHP lost votes not only to the İYİ Party but also to the HDP, as a result of the ultra-left’s desertion of the CHP in its mission to drive the HDP over the 10 percent national threshold, and reduce the AKP’s lead in parliament. There will be considerable infighting in the CHP, which might consider an emergency congress to elect İnce as party chair ahead of the March 2019 municipal elections.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s various tactics, thus shorn of any long-term vision or programme competing with the AKP, is a complete failure. To the sense of catastrophe surrounding Kılıçdaroğlu, the bitter irony must added that the CHP’s lowest showing in the national vote since 2011 was  buoyed by the votes of an Islamic constituency. The CHP appropriated 671,000 votes from the Felicity (Saadet) Party, which had joined CHP’s “Nation Alliance”, but which had failed to pass the 10% threshold required to enter parliament. This failure thus adds 3 deputies to the CHP’s tally of 144 seats, an outcome which will haunt the remainder of Temel Karamollaoğlu’s political future, such as is it. His inability to attract voters away from the AKP for the Felicity Party will surely have drawn it to a close.

The HDP’s success is down to the ultra-left voters, but it gives the chance for the party now to draw a clear line between itself and the terror acts of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), despite sharing the same grassroots. This is a possibility since its leader, Demirtaş, serving a jail sentence for aiding and abetting terrorist violence, has recent admitted the error of the party’s previous support for the PKK as inconsistent with democratic participation. Furthermore, the presence of the HDP in parliament now gives the Turkish establishment a formal interlocutor for the Kurdish people and is thus a positive development. This is especially important in the light of the fact that Erdoğan’s alliance with Bahçeli will undoubtedly mean a ramping up of military action in Iraq and Syria against the PKK.

This particular outcome is significant. The HDP presence in parliament is a sweetener for Kurds, balancing out the harsh military action against the PKK. The Kurds might finally insist on full participation in the civil community represented by the Turkish democratic space, in which they have been offered full equality. The PKK umbrella group – the KCK – had rejected this in July 2015 in favour of war and the prospect of Kurdish national independence (Rojava), based on political opportunities afforded by Assad’s policies in Syria, on US logistical and weapons support from the US, and on financial support from the UAE/Saudi Arabia. The choice remains and is stark: the HDP will have more seats in parliament (67) as the MHP (50), and thus the wherewithal to negotiate with Erdoğan if it commits to a democratic agenda rather than blindly following the PKK’s programme of violence. A note of caution: the KCK’s hold on HDP deputies is, however, strong and not many share Demirtaş’ strength of mind.

As Erdoğan recently stated, the Kurds have a nation wherein the Kurdish language, Kurdish media, and Kurdish aspirations will flourish: it is called Turkey, the geographical designation. Bringing the enmity of Turks and Kurds to an end by sidelining the PKK’s divisiveness will also help stabilise both Iraq and Syria. While Syria has a long way to go yet to reach a political solution to its devastating crisis, Iraq’s political scene is developing apace. The acceptance by the Barzani clan of the lack of wisdom in the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum, and of a renewed commitment to the Iraqi constitution – under pressure from Turkey, Iran and (from within) from the Talabani clan – was an important recent step towards Iraqi stability. But most important was the fact that the elections were a breakthrough in the process of overcoming the narrow Maliki-type of sectarian governance, while the post-election visit of Qasim Suleimani to Baghdad led to a shift in Sadr’s proposed alliance with Hadi al-Amiri, to one with al-Abadi, more conducive to political stability. This is surprising in that al-Amiri is much closer to Iran than Abadi.

In regards to Turkey itself, the electoral catastrophe suffered by Erdoğan’s opponents on June 24 is only partly due to Kılıçdaroğlu’s astonishing lack of political skills, and to Akşener’s delusions about her popularity among Turkish nationalists. It is also partly a result of the credit due to Erdoğan for his total transformation of the Turkish economy since the depressed 1990’s, and the quintupling of Turkish per capita incomes since. Above all, however, it is due mainly to the relentless attacks by the Western media on Erdoğan over the years, and the support – entirely transparent to the Turkish public – of its masters in the Western security state, of the Gülen movement  (aka FETÖ) and the PKK as Western proxies.

Erdoğan’s electoral success is thus mainly due to the continued perceived threat of interference by foreign powers in Turkey’s affairs by the people. Such interference, in their minds, promises only the same kind of devastation that is plainly evident in Turkey’s neighbourhood, and which is viscerally felt by Turks first-hand, from their need to support 4 million desperate refugees in their homeland. The reaction of the new middle classes who have risen during the Erdogan boom in this electoral cycle has thus, quite naturally, focused on defending the country’s integrity and sovereignty, reliving in this new chaotic era Mustafa Kemal’s rescue of the nation from dismemberment by foreign powers in 1919-23.

Nationalism returns as Muqtada el-Sadr leads the winning party in the Iraqi parliamentary election

Along with victories for Ennahda in Tunisia, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and now the Sadrist alliance in Iraq, nationalism is coming back to elections in Arab countries, whose politics have been riven by increased foreign interference since the Arab Spring.

On the Move” (al-Sa’iroun) or the “Alliance of Revolutionaries for Reform” (54 seats*), headed by Muqtada al-Sadr, comprising the Sadrist Movement and the Communist Party wins the most seats, possibly as much as a third. This result will put the US’s nose out of joint.

The Iran-backed “Conquest Alliance” or “Fatah Alliance”, headed by Hadi al-Amiri (47 seats*), comprising the popular base of the Haashd el-Shaabi  militias and some Sunni groups, comes second, while the US-backed Haidar al-Abadi‘s “Victory Alliance” or “Tahaluf el-Nasr” comes third (42 seats*).

All three leading groups are cross-sectarian, which augurs a major improvement in the nature of Iraqi politics. The other Iranian-backed party, “State of Law coalition” run by Nouri al-Maliki is really no longer in the running (26 seats*), although it is a potential coalition partner with the Conquest Alliance, coming equal fourth with the Kurdish Democratic Party (26 seats*). Iyad Allawi‘s National Alliance or “al-Wataniyya” (the party closest to US interests) comes fifth (22 seats*); Ammar el-Hakim, ex-ally of el-Abadi, and his National Wisdom Movement come sixth (19 seats*); The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan comes seventh (18 seats*); and the Sunni Uniters for Reform Coalition or “Decision Alliance” come eighth (14 seats*).  The remaining 61 seats are split between 12 other parties and some independents*.

*updates 18th March, subject to objections of widespread electoral fraud, which have not yet been addressed 

The only problem with the elections, however, was the low voter turnout of 44%. Nevertheless, this represented an abstention by older generations and the younger generation seeking change were disproportionately represented.

It looks like Sadr wants to exclude al-Amiri and al-Maliki from any future coalition. Given that Sadr and the Sadrists don’t want to be PM, it may be that Abadi is offered the job as long as he pursues the nationalist Sadrist plan. Sadr, Abadi and al-Hakim together can, with their allies, dominate parliament with half the seats. Iran, on the other hand, through auspices of Qasem Soleimani are trying to bring Abadi into coalition with al-Amiri and al-Maliki, to form a government. Iran is firmly opposed to the Communist element in Sadr’s coalition. So Abadi finds himself in the middle of a tug-of-war, but either way he will be turning his back on the US.

The political outcome of these events means the US will have to accept much more limited influence than Abadi allowed them to have during his recent tenure. As Marco Carnelos points out: “Irrespective of Moqtada Al Sadr’s victory in the Iraqi elections, the political outcome in the country will be more favourable to Tehran than Washington”.

The rout of Barzani’s KDP continues as PMM-backed Yazidi group retakes Sinjar

As Masoud Barzani’s independence gambit lies in tatters, and the Peshmerga continue their retreat, the Iraqi Yazidi group Lalesh, affiliated with Iraq’s Iran-backed PMM (Al-Hashd al-Shaabi), takes over the Yazidi capital in Northern Iraq, Sinjar.

The Iraqi federal government’s Joint Operations Command said that Iraqi forces have been redeployed, aside from Sinjar and other areas in the Nineveh plains, across Khanaqin and Jalawla in Diyala province, as well as Makhmur, Bashiqa, and the Mosul dam, Sinjar.

Calls for Barzani’s resignation are coming in now from all quarters of the Kurdish community.

The third act of the Iraqi Saga: Iraq coming together under Abadi

The final act of the Iraqi gambit launched  by G. W. Bush/A. Blair gambit to “reshape the Middle-East” is underway, and may have a surprising outcome. After the 2003 US invasion and subsequent withdrawal, the US proceeded to gradually reinstate itself in Northern Iraq (and Syria) through it alliance with the Kurds, in what is ostensibly a campaign against DAESH/ISIS, the spread of which, however, there is now ample documentation to prove, the US had earlier helped to promote as part of a strategy to destabilise and remove the Assad régime in Damascus, and sever the bridge between Iran and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.

The US had also helped the Iraqi army reorganise after its defeat in Mosul 2014, given that Daesh/ISIS was threatening the whole of Iraq at the time, and the Iraqi army would be necessary boots on the ground for a difficult campaign against a widely spread opponent. Ultimately, it was the reorganised Iraqi army, with a few US advisers, but nevertheless under Haidar el-Abadi’s leadership, that cut its teeth, and lost much blood, in retaking Mosul. Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi was, until now, veering towards an alliance with the US against the rigidly pro-Iranian sections (e.g. Nouri al-Maliki) of the Iraqi political scene.

All this was before KRG referendum on independence and Trump’s speech decertifying the  Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action  (JCPOA) P5+1+EU Iran Nuclear Deal, and his thinly veiled threats against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Together these spelled a potential reigniting of US ambitions to sever the bridge now between Iran and Syria (Assad having survived) with a Kurdish entity under its aegis. Furthermore, with a Kurdish population in Iran, a KRG-US alliance could potentially provide the US with direct and effective lever to undermine the Iranian régime. It was hardly likely that Iran, with its deep involvement in Iraq, and its need to keep the direct link with Syria would stand idly by and allow that situation to be realised.

Abadi’s reliance on the US to bolster his own position will now melt away, as he will build on his reputation as the conqueror of Mosul. This requires his continued campaigning to keep control over the Iraqi army forces, which have now become the foundation of his rule. The Iraqi PMM militia (el-Hashd el-Shaabi) represents a potential competitor, supported directly by Iran’s IRGC, that he needs to keep on a tight leash in all future conflict. This he can only do by keeping it marginalised as a force secondary to his own.  Trump’s speech will have pushed the IRGC to increase its investment in the PMM hugely to ensure the KRG/Peshmerga’s defeat (besides the effect it is having in raising the IRGC’s stock within Iran) . The US will continue to supply Abadi, irrespective of what he does, because he is their only potentially ally in Baghdad, while Abadi himself will focus on his race against these various mounting pressures.

The KRG’s independence referendum presented a opportunity that answered Abadi’s political needs. The US can now only sit and watch as tensions mount between two of its allies. Trump’s speech made this outcome inevitable. Abadi is on the road to turning himself into a indispensable political force in Iraq as he commits to marginalising the KRG by retaking the Kirkuk oil fields and thus the major source of its revenue. This, it would appear, he has begun to do as the Peshmerga retreat from Kirkuk. The revenue itself is of little import to a government in Baghdad that produces ten times as much oil in its southern provinces. The whole point is to render the KRG’s independence gambit cashless.

Given that the Peshmerga forces that abandoned their positions in Kirkuk belong to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) faction, it would appear that a deal has been struck between Baghdad and the PUK to unseat Barzani and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in Irbil. Bafel Talabani, the son of PUK leader, the late Jalal Talabani, had opposed the referendum and had warned the Kurds were heading for disaster. Two large oil fields a bit further west of Kirkuk, Bai Hassan and Avana Dome, are as of writing, still under Kurdish management although the Peshmerga have now left. Temporary shutdown of oil production at the two field appears to have been reversed as the Iraqi government threatened to remove the management.

Kirkuk has been a bone of contention between Baghdad and the KDP Irbil since the very beginning of the functioning of the new Iraqi constitution. The Kurds had benefitted from US patronage ever since Bill Clinton’s no-fly zone. When the new constitution was written, the KRG was given special autonomy, but without Kirkuk which is only one-third Kurdish in demographic terms. However, it was KDP policy to change that situation by bussing Kurdish populations into Kirkuk, changing, in a phase made famous by the Israelis, “facts on the ground”. This led to bad relations with the Federal Government in Baghdad, whose leaders eventually stopped paying the KRG bureaucracy’s salaries. The referendum was only to go ahead because of the personal intervention of Kirkuk’s hawkish Kurdish governor, Najmeddin Karim. Now he has been stripped of all his powers.

What is helping Abadi to reach his goal is the fact that the US has managed to so undermine its relationship with Turkey, with its Kurdish alliances, that the Turks are now opening new direct border connections with Iraq that bypass its erstwhile KRG. This has led to the complete regional isolation of the KRG, given that Iran is also now effectively closing its own border points with the Kurdish enclave at Haji Omaran, Parwezkhan and Bashmaq. Thus under total siege, KRG’s president Masoud Barzani’s position is unenviable. Time and history is on Abadi’s side, and potentially a military triumph in Kirkuk will mean the survival of Iraq as a nation and its astonishing retreat from the brink of partition.

This will also give hope to Sunnis in Iraq, as a post-campaign consolidation of Abadi’s power vis-à-vis Iranian elements in Iraq, will require that he brings Sunnis under his political tent. This outcome would need to involve a rebalancing of the post-war sectarian régime in Baghdad with its lack of governing capability, but is likely to occur as a result of the new tripartite interaction between Turkey, Iran and Iraq at multiple economic, political and security levels and the need to satisfy the broad range of interests all this entails.

What is now abundantly clear is that the G. W. Bush/A. Blair gambit to “reshape the Middle-East” has failed, and since the beginning of the Astana process, regional powers are consolidating their hold on the region’s security, and sidelining the US. It is remarkable that, unlike Syria, which is now merely a de juro entity, Iraq looks like it will regain its sovereignty. The defeat of the KDP, will bring the KRG back as a player within the Baghdad political scene, while the clear need to include Sunnis in the process will likely be answered by Abadi, for his own political reasons, quite besides it being part of a regional settlement. It all may collapse again, but this is unlikely.

Muqtada al-Sadr’s various attacks on the Federal government over the past two years, has made it clear that there is a strong current in Shia politics in favour of an Iraqi nationalist stance, independent of Iran which Abadi can rely on, and which he can now invest in virtue of his new stature since in success in Mosul, and in Kirkuk (although this last success has something also to do with negotiations between the PUK/Talabani clan and the IRGC’s Qasim Suleimani that took place in Suleimaniya during the KRG’s referendum). A democratic federated Iraq may slowly be emerging, and the era of ethno-nationalisms fading.

 

 

A Tale of Two Independence Referenda

Catalonia and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) are instances of the central government behaving badly in Spain’s case and the regional entity behaving badly in the other. The fallout in the case of Spain will be ongoing instability, which will have a Europe-wide impact, and in the case of the KRG, contrary to all prognostications, will have a stabilising effect on the Middle East, as Barzani is forced to climb down from the tree he is sitting on.

Spain felt some of the worst effects of the financial crash in Europe and really hasn’t recovered since, except as far as the country’s manipulated national accounts are concerned. Youth unemployment officially at 39%, unofficially much higher, is foreshadowing a lost generation. The effects of all this on Catalan national feeling in the face of an unpopular government of austerity that keeps coming back into power in Madrid, cast the die.

Moreover, this north-eastern region of Spain was granted autonomy under the 1978 constitution. However, a fraught relationship between the political classes in Madrid and Barcelona began in 2010 when extra powers granted to Catalonia in 2006 were unilaterally rescinded by Spain’s Constitutional Court. An unofficial vote on independence in November 2014 showed 80% support for secession, after which the Catalan Regional Government (CRG) decided to launch the current referendum (which seems to have achieved a 90% yes vote of 2.2m people, on a 42% turnout).

Unlike the KRG, the CRG has the administrative wherewithal to make success of independence, and the democratic structures to make independence about all the residents of the region. The reaction of the central government in Madrid will cost it dear in terms of credibility. Without Catalonia, Spain as an entity may shrink, but as a geographical entity, Catalonia isn’t going anywhere, and there is no reason for either economy to suffer anymore than they have already. In fact, shaking moribund Spanish political structures is what is needed for the future.

International opinion has swung the way of Catalonia even as Madrid pummels its people into submission. Nevertheless, the EU has determined their referendum to be illegal, which now presumably makes a mockery of its decision to allow Kosovo to separate from Serbia and continue life as a failed state. The Spanish King read out the script handed to him by the Madrid government, which will reinforce Catalan resistance. The strange thing is that although a part of the Catalan population is opposed to leaving Spain, it is still wholly united with the nationalists when it comes to maximum devolution. Perhaps that is message that needs to be understood.

Barzani’s KRG on the other hand, where the independence referendum passed with over 90% of the vote, is an entity without democratic structures. It is run by the Barzani clan (politically embodied in the Kurdish Democratic Party -KDP) that decided on the referendum precisely because of the pressure it was under from rival groups (the Talabani clan represented by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran movement). None of these parties meet in a parliamentary setting: their role is purely and simply to carve out and rule different pieces of Northern Iraq.

Without the support of Turkey, the KRG wouldn’t have survived its problems with a dysfunctional Iraqi government in Baghdad over the last few years. It doesn’t have the wherewithal to make independence a reality, essentially launching both the Kurdish and non-Kurdish populations of the area into the unknown. Arab and Turkmen residents in the area will fear for their lives, while even Kurds are unlikely to benefit from a system that is socially just. But Barzani is under fire now from his own followers for a gross political miscalculation, and his future is in doubt.

Ironically, however, Barzani’s rash move seems to have strengthened the hand of the Astana trio (Russia-Turkey-Iran). This would not have been predicted by Barzani’s CIA and Mossad advisers. After Putin’s visit to Ankara, Russia is likely to trade its support of Turkey against the KRG referendum in exchange for Turkey’s support for the Russian solution in Syria. This will effectively reinforce the structures of cooperation that have been forged regionally at Astana over the Syria question, and extend them into the Iraqi political quagmire, to provide a framework within which the Iraqi government can be encouraged to reform without facing new potentially existential questions.

Part of what will be driving these developments is the perception by all parties that behind Barzani’s asinine decision lies a US-Israeli axis that will seek co-opt Saudi Arabia and the UAE into exploiting the Kurdistan referendum to start another round of proxy wars in the area. There is no doubt that military manoeuvres on KRG borders by Iranian and Turkish forces together with the Iraqi army reflect an urgent sense of preparing for the worst.

The neocon philosophy dominating the thinking of Barzani’s foreign advisers is typically always linear and always fails to understand the principle of reaction. Not only can Iran and Turkey see them coming, but these regional players now have the power jointly to do something about it, especially if Russia sees it is in its interest to come off the fence.

Iran in particular sees any Kurdistani project as a potential cordon sanitaire that will have the effect of cutting it off from Lebanon, to try to achieve the results that the botched war against Assad never could. So, contained in Hassan Nasrallah’s warnings to Israel and the US over coming conflicts is a promise to take the war to the occupied territories in that  event.

 

The US is “disappointed” (but clearly not surprised) that Barzani went for the referendum

The state Department is by far the largest most complex part of American bureaucracy. But even so, the size of the new US “consulate” in Irbil, the capital of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is astonishing. It will cost $600 million, and  be built on 200,000 square meters on the Irbil-Shaqlawa Road. This structure will be second in size only to the actual US Embassy in Baghdad which cost $750 million, and was built on 420,000 square-meters, an area the size of the Vatican.

There are currently 30 consulates, six honorary consulates, and six foreign trade offices in Irbil. The latest to open in Kurdistan was the Japanese consulate on Jan. 11. None anywhere near the size of the US project. Iran’s view was expressed by IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Hossein Rajabi when he said that ” the opening more than 30 consulates is not normal”. The upgrading of the size of the US presence in Irbil, followed by the confidence with which KRG President Masoud Barzani went ahead with the referendum, has in diplomatic speak “absolutely nothing to do with US plans to control the dominance of Iran in Iraq” (the unintended consequence of the 2003 war).

Turkey is an ally of the KRG but has taken a harsh stance on the referendum together with Iran and the Iraqi government. Nevertheless, Masoud’s nephew, and KRG Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, is dismissive of the idea that Turkey’s stance is anymore than a negotiating position on their relationship. This view appears to be be in line with the typical pragmatism of Erdogan’s government, reflected in the equally relaxed attitude of his Economy Minister, Nihat Zeybekci.  However, as the KRG begin intense negotiations to regain Turkey’s confidence, they may be underestimating both their clout, and the events of the referendum on the geopolitical situation.

Keeping the Harbur border crossing open isn’t what it seems. Firstly, Turkey’s main practical problem currently is how to trade directly with Baghdad, both given the change of control at the Iraq border, and given that trade with the Iraqi government is worth three times more than Turkish trade with the KRG.  Secondly, unintended consequences being a big political feature of our new 21st century, it looks inevitable that Turkey will continue to keep its military on full alert and present in large numbers on the Iraqi/KRG border.

Barzani’s gamble to save his own political future will have lit 100 fires, and as yet the KRG is still just a large tribal organisation run by a traditional blood clan. At the moment it looks like Turkey together with Iran will work to freeze Barzani’s ambitions. Russia’s position will be to trade its backing for the Turkish-Iranian position in exchange for Turkish backing for the status quo in Syria. This has now been clearly signalled since Putin’s visit to Ankara.

 

 

Extraordinary Saudi visit to Baghdad confirms new geopolitical realities

In my last article on the Middle East peace process, the potential success of the Astana talks was explored. The conflicting priorities between the main players – Russia, Turkey and Iran – were described, despite all the difficulties, as ultimately supportive of a new stable solution in the region. Saudi Arabia, it was clarified was silently supportive of the process, resigning itself to its withdrawal from the Syrian scene. This surprise visit by Jubeir to Baghdad, clearly heralds a new positive rather than disruptive approach to the Iraqi scene, and is a strong confirmation that the factors in favour of the Astana process are consolidating rather than dissipating. The visit will  help the Saudi-Iranian relationship (something the Russians are pushing hard), but will also encourage the Iraqi government to move on from the bunker mentality adopted by al-Maliki during his rule – a potentially very positive prospect.

This is an important development in the light of the difficulties expected after the battle for Mosul is over

The Road after Mosul

Mosul post- DAESH risks becoming the new vortex of instability in the Middle East with Iranian, U.S. and Kurdish forces vying for control of the area. It will be interesting to see how Gen. Mattis can hope shape a new strategy in his visit to Baghdad. Likely as not, the U.S. will seek to use the marginalisation of the Sunni sector to increase its profile.

So far the Iraqi government has deliberately avoided agreeing to a formula which will empower the Sunni Arabs in Mosul in the post-DAESH era and it intends to restore the regime which was in place before the DAESH takeover in 2014. Iran will use its influence with Iraqi groups, especially with the followers of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to restore Mosul’s pre-DAESH administrative regime. This will give Iran safe land access to Syria so as to complete its Shiite Crescent design for the Middle East. However, this plan will eventually clash with the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) desire to maintain its control in the newly gained territories in Mosul’s predominantly Kurdish districts. This Iranian-inspired policy in Mosul is also contrary to the Sunni Arabs’ plan for self-rule in the province, especially with the plan of the Mutahidoun bloc of Osama al-Nujaifi.

The issue of the participation of the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Units or PMU) was a serious complicating factor in the preparations for the battle for Mosul. While the U.S. and non-Shiite groups wanted to exclude the PMU from the Mosul operation, Iran and Iraqi Shiite groups within the government insisted on their participation. The PMUs maintain between 60,000 and 90,000 men under arms on a rotating basis. Indeed, the concept of al-Hashd al-Shaabi was launched not by the state but by a so-called al-wajib al-kifai fatwa issued in June 2014 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite leader. The Popular Mobilization Committee was headed by Jamal Jaafar Mohammad, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, a former Badr commander. Mohandis is now the right-hand man of Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, which is highly influential in shaping Iraq’s regional future.

The reaction to U.S. involvement in the Mosul operation by forces outside the Iraqi government has already made itself felt even under Obama. As soon as al-Abadi had agreed terms with Obama, al-Maliki launched the Islah (Reform) bloc to exert pressure not just on al-Abadi, but also on Kurds, and Sunni Arabs. In addition, Iranian backed militias made numerous threats against the U.S.. Qais Khazali, the leader of Asaeb Ahlul Haq, and Muqtada Sadr, the head of Sarayah Selam militias, stated that U.S. troops in Iraq are legitimate targets for attack. Militia commanders, including Hadi al- Ameri, who is the leader of the powerful Badr group, issued many statements openly defying the views shared by al-Abadi and the U.S. on the participation of the Hashd al-Shaabi in the Mosul operation.

It is very likely that there will also be further confrontations between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the control of the disputed territories in the northern and eastern parts of the province. On July 30, 2016, Barzani had staked his claim: “Liberating Mosul is impossible without the Peshmerga”. He added that although the Peshmerga will take part in the operation, they would not enter the city of Mosul. It was then that he proposed that 50,000 Peshmerga would participate in the battle. Ultimately though only 10,000 Peshmerga turned up . Almost immediately (by August 25), there were acrimonious exchanges between al-Abadi and Kurdish leaders. Karim Nouri, a top commander of the Badr forces, demanded the total withdrawal of Kurds after the battle, while Shaikh Jafar, a political bureau member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and top military commander, responded by categorically refusing to bow to this pressure.

It is expected that the Iraqi central government will emerge from the battle against DAESH victorious, thus gaining much military and political power on the ground in and around Mosul. If the past is any guide, the centralising character of this régime will determine events, with all the negative consequences that can be expected to ensue from this. The only factor that could possibly help this situation is the complex multi-level Turkish-Iranian relationship. This could bring a balance of interests between the Sunnis, Kurds and the Iraqi government. In fact, only in the context of a broad give-and-take between the two regional powers could the looming disputes over the control of Kirkuk’s oil resources be resolved without naked conflict.

However, the way the cards will fall will partly depend on whether the US (Gen Mattis) will seek to implement a palliative (strictly anti-ISIS/DAESH) or disruptive (anti-Russian) strategy. Judging from the navel-gazing going on in Washington, although the Pentagon will try to secure a ‘Sunnistan’ base for itself in the region, it will not be expansionist. Also, if the factors that are uniting regional players around the Astana process continue, despite its presence on the ground, the US will be marginalised.

Turkey insists it will be part of the settlement after the battle for Mosul is over

Erdoğan insisted today, speaking at the International Law Congress held in Istanbul, that Turkey will take part in operations to liberate Mosul from Daesh/IS, and that it will be at the diplomatic table in the aftermath.

Irrespective of previous declarations by Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş confirmed that the 3,000 Turkish trained forces of the Nineveh Brigades, who are all Sunni fighters from the local area, are participating directly in the Mosul operation. Furthermore, Turkish artillery and air power will provide cover for the south-westerly Peshmerga advance, which would be seriously compromised without this backing.

Abadi’s pronouncements denouncing the Turkish presence were driven by the power-play for influence within the Shia bloc with Nouri al-Maliki, who announced bluntly that Mosul should be taken ‘in the same manner’ as Damascus, Sana’a, and Beirut were taken, leaving little to the imagination.